Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Visual communication at workstations improves operational flow

July 19, 2013
By Jack Rubinger and Dave Hogg

Lean manufacturing environments constantly evolve to address rapidly changing customer needs, which means workstations and areas within the plant are constantly impacted by transitions, additions, and moves. Manufacturing leadership that emphasizes visual communications lends a new perspective on lean manufacturing and helps improve operational flow.

Here are three typical scenarios where visual communications can do just that.

TRANSITIONS: Changing facilities without missing a beat

“A large Fortune 500 manufacturer made a strategic decision to swap production lines of similar products at two of its facilities to optimize supply chain operations,” said Troy McKnight, partner with PM Alliance, a project management firm in Georgia. “This strategy was a challenging endeavour. What increased the complexity was (a) they could not stop production while this line swap was happening, and (b) one of the facilities was in the UK and the other was in North America.”


Situations like this make a compelling case for extensive visual communications, specifically the kind promoted by lean manufacturing advocates. Lean techniques to speed such transitions include:

• Using colour and number codes to identify the equipment for each section of the transported line. As each machine or equipment is disassembled, numbered colour-coded labels mark boxes and shipping containers. Upon arrival in the new location, the boxes are opened in reverse order to provide the parts in the proper order to assemble the machine.

• 5S, but with everything returned to its proper location in a different facility. Show which items go to which work area. In the new area, create shadow boards, colour-code work areas, and mark floors with colour tape to show machine locations in advance of everything arriving.

ADDITIONS: New Equipment

“New equipment additions should be purchased with an eye to operational costs, especially when the equipment is a large energy user,” said Mitch Kennedy, founder of the Connecticut-based Design with Nature, LLC. “For example, the addition of a sizable injection molding machine, say 250 – 400 tons or more, could substantially increase the base load power of the facility. Moving is often the best time to reduce future costs for maintenance, utilities, and environmental compliance,” he added.

Visual communications can be critical in such scenarios. Because new machinery and equipment may have different controls or operating parameters, create signs and labels with instructions on how to use machines safely and efficiently.

MOVES: Eliminating Wasteful Motion

Productivity and workflow expert Robby Slaughter, at Indianapolis-based AccelaWork, focuses on warehouse and inventory storage. He has seen many clients ignore some of the most obvious handling costs.

“If you stack palettes as they arrive,” he said, “you will have to un-stack them each time to make a delivery to ensure that aging inventory is given priority. Alternately, if you create zones for each period of time, you’ll be constantly moving your entire inventory from one section to the next as time passes. The best approach is to update the signage rather than move the product.” Magnetic labels that can be easily moved are an excellent option for warehouses.

In the food and pharmaceutical industries, transitions, additions and moves create the potential for waste as these products have limited shelf lives. Chad Metcalf, a food industry consultant at Orilla, Ont.-based Value Stream Solutions, Inc., zeroes in on eight deadly wastes—transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, over-processing, over-production, defects, and underutilized people—which can be mitigated by communicating standard operating procedures to ensure maximum efficiency.


• Each time a product is moved, it stands the risk of being damaged or lost, which is a waste of time and money.
• In contrast to transportation, motion is attributed to the worker. Excess movement to complete tasks or excess distance between workers and tools or materials is wasteful of the worker’s time and energy.
• Over-processing occurs any time more work is done on a piece than is required by the customer. This includes using tools that are more precise, complex, or expensive than absolutely necessary.
• Over-production occurs when more products are produced than is required by the next operation and ultimately the customer. Often considered the worst of the eight deadly wastes, over- production can set the other seven in motion.

Aligning and uniting both managers and production floor workers helps reduce errors, waste and frustration. Open and transparent communication, including signs and labels, needs to be part a part of lean manufacturing practices. Communication is the light that illuminates the direction and future—the lubricant among people which enables a rapid horizontal flow of “part and product.”
Jack Rubinger, Graphic Products, writes for industrial publications worldwide. For more information, visit or email

Dave Hogg is a member of The Association of Manufacturing Excellence’s corporate board. AME is North America’s premier organization for the exchange of knowledge in organizational excellence through the implementation of techniques such as lean tools and lean product development. For more information, email

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